Hawkins and Hawke paint a radiant romance
“Our ideas of perfect are so imperfect…” – Sam Phillips, “Power World”
That line comes from a song inspired by Thomas Merton. Merton, a Trappist monk, keenly observed that love has almost nothing to do with how we live up to standards of law or righteousness. Love’s treasures can be fully experienced by those condemned as inadequate, unworthy, even offensive. In truth, love may be even more alive within those who suffer much, those who feel gratitude for small blessings, those who are poor in spirit.
In view of that, I propose that you won’t find a more striking image of true love on the big screen this year than the picture of Everett Lewis wheelbarrowing Maud — his small, arthritic housemaid — along a rugged road.
It’s a story that we wouldn’t believe if it were presented as fiction. Truth, as we know, is stranger — and Maudie, a tender and observant film written by Sherry White and directed by Aisling Walsh, is based on the unlikely rise to fame of Maud Lewis, a world-famous Christmas-card painter from Nova Scotia. Like Maud herself, the movie comes to life within daunting constraints. Like a towering array of sunflowers rooted in a plastic flowerpot, it transcends its basic mold — the familiar beats of a standard biopic — to offer vivid rewards.
I may not know enough about art to recognize the genius in Maud Lewis’s folk-art scenes of flowers, birds, cats, and farm life. But in view of the strange circumstances from which her art emerged, I marvel at her story: how she endured the body-bending curse rheumatoid arthritis, the crimes and cruelty of a faithless family, the belligerence of the fishmonger named Everett who would hire and eventually marry her, and the way her poverty failed to protect her from the harshness of the elements.
As Maudie and her rough-as-barnacles husband, Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke are an inspired match onscreen. Hawkins manages to find a human being within the complexity of Maud’s severe physical contortions and twitches. She’s easy to care about because she’s such an injured bird. But Hawkins asks for more than pity; she finds a quick wit and a flair for feistiness in Maud’s half-murmured voice. Hawke, in what may be his bravest performance, is even better, taking inspiration, I suspect, from mid-1980s Tom Waits (see Down By Law) for his grunt-based dialect and sullen body language, to create an endearing beast who sees the beauty in Maud’s mess of troubles.
How much of this represents the reality of Maud and Everett’s story?
I’m almost afraid to investigate. I suspect that Walsh and White are taking a lot of artistic license here to give the film a satisfying arc, but these characters are now as real in my mind as people I’ve known. Though the conventional revelation of “real footage” at the end reveals that their extreme “actors workshop” exercises aren’t extreme enough to approximate what Maudie and Everett really looked like, Hawkins and Hawke create a completely convincing relationship between social outcasts, finding moments of surprising humor between instances of Maud’s stumbles and Everett’s bursts of violent temper. (Whenever the film feels like it’s falling into Hallmark-card sentimentality, Everett manages to bring us right back to ugly realism.)
And, like Maud herself, the movie isn’t much for words. The screenplay is simplistic, obvious, and sometimes sentimental, with characters calling each other by name frequently, and even adding tags like “Sister” to make sure that we understand the relationships between characters early on. Maud’s brother Charles is given only enough lines to establish himself as a money-grubbing villain, and her Aunt Ida looks like the Big Bad Wolf in a Grandmotherly disguise.
But the film’s imagery, filmed by Guy Godfree, is exquisite throughout, finding unvarnished beauty in particularity and avoiding the museum-exhibit glow that could easily have romanticized the scene of Everett’s ramshackle cabin. Meditative music by Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins (with a song by Lisa Hannigan) weaves warmth through the cold, hard details of the Lewises’ life in a weatherbeaten cabin.
I’m a sucker for films about artistic awakenings, and the movie that this most reminds me of was my favorite film of 2009: Seraphine. But it also reminds me a great deal of Jeff Nichols’s 2016 movie called Loving, with its focus on complicated intimate moments between seemingly simple people, its consistent preference for quiet moments over big dramatic flourishes, for dust and grit over shiny surfaces, for suggestion over statement, for the nuances of great actors in top form.
So, yeah — if you’re tired of the beats of typical biopics, you’re right in suspecting that this will seem disappointingly familiar at times. But I’d encourage you to go see it anyway. This is a case, in both the movie’s artistry and its lead character, of something beautiful blazing to life within firmly fixed constraints.
It also shines as a substantial illustration that love can take root even in the context of failure, frailty, and poverty — in fact, those things just might be what make it possible.
If I were to write further about this film (and I hope to), I’d probably end up writing a sermon about Maudie as a movie about the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.